“May I help you pick out a Valentine’s Day card?” The collection of cards had just come in and she’d only finished organizing their display a few minutes earlier – an eye-jangling kaleidoscope of hot pink, white and every possible shade of red. He stood sort of slack-jawed, scanning the rows.
The man wore a light brown turtleneck with gray slacks, brown loafers and wheat-colored sport jacket. A woolen scarf hung limply around his neck as though sensing his mood. He had an overcoat of indeterminate age draped over his left arm. His silver hair was slightly over the ears, but was neat and trimmed. He looked together, yet seemed distracted. He answered without looking away from the garish sight in front of his slightly unfocused gaze.
“I’m sorry–I didn’t mean to startle you. You just looked, um, kind of lost trying to choose from so many cards.”
Shaking his head slightly as if dodging an annoying gnat, he turned and—-
Just stood looking at the young sales associate. His eyes had widened and his gaze sharpened. He didn’t mean to stare but she looked so much like—- You have no idea. . .
“Are…are you okay, sir?”
“Oh–yes, thank you.” He was obviously embarrassed.
“Please–forgive me for staring. Yeah, I’m good. For a minute there you. . . you reminded me of— someone.” He looked closely at her for another few seconds then she saw his eyes shift out of focus as if looking over Time’s shoulder. “Please excuse me.” He walked away toward the front of the store, breathing out air he hadn’t realized he was holding in.
Memories. Long-forgotten snippets of conversation, of what seemed at the time to be casual, everyday experiences. Favorite songs. Preferred colors. Things they’d share laughter over as they walked along holding hands. Even her perfume. Other women wore it, but none like she did. He remembered buying it for her, choking at the price. After all, it was her scent. The one that, no matter where he was or with whom, whenever he’d catch a whiff of it he’d immediately stop and begin hunting through all those around him for her. His her.
Ralston had no idea why he was looking at Valentine’s Day cards. It’s not like he had anywhere to send one. The kids were all grown and involved with their own worlds, had somebody to send cards to. If helping one’s offspring to become self-sufficient and relatively independent is considered parental success, he supposed he and Angie had done as well as most. She’d been a wife he’d only dreamed of in so many ways, a fantastic, fun companion and organizer of their household. She was the completer for him, gifted and able in all the places he lacked. He’d often been told how great they looked together and how lucky he was. “Naw, luck had nothing to do with this. That woman was God’s answer to everything He knew I needed. . .” He’d spoken aloud, as those do who often are alone. Hearing the suddenly-husky tremble in his voice, he glanced around self-consciously.
Without realizing it, Ralston had turned to the right as he went out the door of the store, moving along the bricked walkway, lost in his own thoughts. Doesn’t seem like she’s been gone four years already. . . .
Phil knew he needed to shake off the mental lethargy. It isn’t good to live where yesterday is. He glanced up and realized he’d crossed the street without paying attention to what he was doing. Grinning wryly at himself, he looked up and saw the bright orange door of a little cafe. His grin receded in puzzlement. Odd. For the life of him he couldn’t remember ever having seen it before. On a little hanging sign above the door, someone had carefully painted, “Somewhere You’ve Always Wanted To Be”.
He shrugged. Not having anywhere in particular to go and realizing the danger of staying immersed in the foggy funk surrounding his heart like a cold mist, he reached for the knob and opened the door.
Delicious baking smells made his stomach growl. Might be a good idea to start eating right, too. He’d been eating just enough to keep body and soul together, but where once fun, it wasn’t without her. It wasn’t that Ralston was uncomfortable with solitude. But they did so much together, and finding new, fun places to enjoy a meal was at the top of that list. The joy he once received from it had faded into a grim necessity. He knew that needed to stop, but wasn’t sure how. Entering and closing the door, he stood looking around. It was small, but orderly and spotless, every exposed surface clean and shiny.
“Just seat yerself anywhere ya like, frind. First cuppa coffee’s on the hoose.” Ralston turned in the direction of the voice, a soft baritone, its burr and timbre as smooth as a Callard & Bowser butterscotch. It belonged to a smiling fellow walking his way, brimming coffee carafe in one hand and the first and second fingers of his other hand hooked through the handles of two thick old coffee mugs of the sort one would expect to find in the galley of an aging tramp steamer.
Setting the mugs down, the man said, “I’m Joshua” as he poured steaming, fragrant coffee into the mugs. Placing the carafe on the table in front of Ralston, he pulled out a chair and sat, resting his hands on the table edge. They were massive, sporting some of the biggest knuckles Phil had ever seen outside a butcher shop.
“I’ve been expectin’ ya ta drop by.”
“Ah, not ta worry. I expect someone ta come in muh shop every day. And since I niver know who or when that is, I’ve always got fresh coffee brewin’ and cherry cheesecake danishes or some such bakin’. Let me go get some; they should be riddy to come out of the oven.” Ah. So that’s what smelled so wonderful.
As this strange man retreated into the kitchen, Ralston could see his imposing size. This guy has a back the approximate size of Vermont. And he’s a baker. Right.
Joshua returned, carrying two medium-sized blue plates with the promised danishes centered on them, the still-warm creamy topping glistening as he set them down, placing forks and spoons for them both. As he took a sip of his coffee, Ralston noticed the corded tendons and powerful muscles in arms uncovered by the rolled-back sleeves of the chambray shirt. There seemed a quiet, latent sense of awesome energy, though the man sat quietly, seeming to enjoy Ralston’s company.
“Aw, man! This is to die for!” Ralston put the fork down and spooned up some more of the warm, sweet sauce that had run down onto the plate. “I can’t recall the last time I’ve tasted something so. . . so— ”
“Oh, yeah. Definitely.” He poked the business end of the fork once again into another large bite of amazing, warm cherry filling, daubing it like a 9-year-old into the creamy sauce and trying to get it to his mouth before–
“What was her name?”
Ralston’s hand froze. “What?” That sugary-smooth cream ran back off the bite of danish, dripping onto the plate unnoticed. “What–what did you say?”
Phil’s throat was suddenly thick and dry. “Angie,” he croaked. He took a drink of his coffee, the cup trembling in his shaking fingers. “How did you know?”
“I can always see the signs of the great lovers. There’s always somethin’ aboucha that marks ya as a man of deep, abidin’ love that nothin’ and no one kin break. And ya have that undeniable mark also as a man too often alone who was made ta share his double-wide heart with a woman and fer sure ta have it returned.”
Ralston sat stunned, tears that were now never far from the surface coursing down cheeks grooved by decades of smiles and laughter shared with his sweet—-
“I’ve got a bit o’ somethin’ ta take with ya. Hang on, then.” Joshua disappeared into the back again, this time coming out with a boxed red package, tied at the top. There was a card enclosed in a pink envelope fastened under the tie.
“Here’s a fresh danish ta take along. The Book says God’s near to the brokenhearted and is always savin’ them that’ve had their spirit’s crushed. One of the best ways ta help heal a broken heart is ta find somebody else who’s hurtin’ and share the sweetness with ’em. Go on with ya, now–oh, and if ya would, wait ’til ya get home ta read the card.”
Strange request. But, then, everything about this guy’s strange. Phil wiped his eyes, blew his nose and shrugged into his middle-aged overcoat. Taking the package in one hand, he reached to shake Joshua’s hand. It felt gentle, but its immense size gave him the inmistakable feeling that as affable as this man is, he’d be extremely formidable.
“Joshua, thank you. How long has this been here?” The man simply folded his massive hands together and stood quietly, saying, “Phillip, make this a good day. Go and rebuild your dreams.”
He had parked in his driveway and was on the step unlocking the door when it hit him. I never told that guy my name. His eyes now focused on the bright package in his hand. Hesitant but curious, he walked to the dining table he never used any more, laid the package down and removed his overcoat and jacket. Tossing them on the back of a chair, he picked up the package and untied the string, releasing the envelope.
Package or card first? He quirked the left corner of his mouth, realizing he’d spoken aloud again. The walls were used to it. They said nothing. Since he already knew what was in the package, he set it down and picked up the bright pink envelope. Pink?
Opening it, the scent hit him: Oh, my sweet Angie. He sank down in a dining room chair, looking dumbfounded at the card. On the right it simply said, “Happy Valentine’s Day, My Love” But on the left was a note in Angie’s own handwriting: “Phil, I know you’re one of the world’s best lovers, the most thoughtful, considerate man I’ve ever known. You spoiled me every morning with fresh coffee in bed and a warm, loving kiss to awaken me. I took it for granted without meaning to, and I could see each time you walked away to start the day something inside was slowly numbing. I can’t change any of that now. But I want you to know I love you more now than ever. Please find somebody who’s hurting just like you and take these danishes to share with them. Four years is long enough. How I love you, my sweetheart. I always will.”
It was signed, “Your Angie”.
Speechless, Ralston sat staring. How could– How did– He jumped up, shrugged into his jacket and overcoat, raced out to the car and retraced his way to Somewhere You’ve Always Wanted To—
He checked to make sure he had the right address. It was the right building, but there was no sign. Frowning, he stepped closer to the window to see inside. There were tables and a few assorted chairs, but all were dusty from disuse. The counter was bare, the door leading into the kitchen hanging from one hinge. The floor was dirty and scuffed.
Not knowing what to make of it but realizing Time and Timelessness had briefly met to bring him a message, he aimlessly headed back home. Once again standing over the table, leaning on his hands, he was rereading that note in handwriting so intimate and familiar:
“. . . I want you to know I love you more now than ever. Please find somebody who’s hurting just like you and take these danishes to share with them. Four years is long enough. How I love you, my sweetheart. I always will.”
With fresh, hot tears wetting his face and looking up in his heart to God–for by now he was sure what had just happened–he thought, “Lord, You know me. I’m no young man, I’m not into the dating scene. I have no interest in shallow, trivial stuff. Where in the world will I find—”
It was his cell phone. It was ringing . . .
© D. Dean Boone, February 2014